DENVER – A federal appeals court on Tuesday set up a potential new battle over gun control laws in Colorado after it sent a legal challenge back to a lower court to be dismissed.
Sheriffs from most of Colorado’s 64 counties, gun-rights groups, businesses and individuals sued the state over the gun control laws passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature in 2013.
The laws banned ammunition magazines of more than 15 rounds and required universal background checks for firearm transfers.
Democrats led the charge following high-profile mass shooting incidents, including the July 2012 Aurora movie theater massacre, which claimed 12 lives.
The U.S. District Court in Denver ruled in June 2014 that the sheriffs did not have standing to sue in their official capacity, but the case continued. After a two-week civil trial, Chief Judge Marcia S. Krieger upheld the 2013 gun laws.
Krieger raised questions as to whether the Second Amendment would apply to the case, suggesting, “The Supreme Court does not equate the Second Amendment ‘right to keep and bear arms’ to guarantee an individual the ‘right to use any firearm one chooses for self-defense.’
“This statute does not prevent the people of Colorado from possessing semiautomatic weapons for self-defense, or from using those weapons as they are designed to function,” Krieger added. “The only limitation imposed is how frequently they must reload their weapons.
“No evidence presented here suggests that the general ability of a person to defend him or herself is seriously diminished if magazines are limited to 15 rounds,” she continued in her written ruling.
The sheriffs appealed to a three-member panel of the 10th Circuit court, which found in its 33-page ruling that the lower court lacked jurisdiction. The appellate court ordered the lower court to dismiss the case.
“A federal court can’t ‘assume’ a plaintiff has demonstrated ... standing in order to proceed to the merits of the underlying claim, regardless of the claim’s significance,” Judge Nancy L. Moritz wrote in presenting the appellate decision.
The sheriffs of La Plata, Montezuma, Dolores, San Juan and Archuleta counties joined the lawsuit.
It may seem like a blow to the sheriffs, who argued that the 2013 laws are unenforceable and violate the Second Amendment.
But Dave Kopel, an attorney who represented the sheriffs, said the appellate ruling opens the door for a fresh case with new plaintiffs, though he said he had not identified who those plaintiffs would be.
“There is not a word in the 10th Circuit of any, now valid, legal opinion that is against us on the merits. The Judge Krieger decision is no more,” Kopel, a research director with the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute, said ahead of a news conference following the appellate court’s ruling.
“We’ve always felt that we have a very strong case on the merits, and the sheriffs intend to continue and get a decision on the merits, which we believe, if a court follows the Supreme Court, will lead to a victory for the plaintiffs and the erasure of these unconstitutional and unenforceable laws.”
Gun control advocates, however, celebrated the ruling, though they would have preferred that the court not open the door to a new challenge.
“This is a victory for us,” said Eileen McCarron, president of Colorado Ceasefire. “I know they’ll come back again. ... But this is about the right to life of people who are killed by mass murderers.”